Credible Messengers

Baltimore’s Violence Interrupters Confront Shootings, the Coronavirus, and Corrupt Cops

Levar Mullen inside an arabber stable in Southwest Baltimore. Photo: Alpine Labs

“Hey, Officer Friendly with the cherry cheeks,” a Black woman said to an unmasked, white Baltimore police sergeant as he approached her outside a public housing project in April. In response, the sergeant intentionally coughed on the woman and kept walking.

“Oh, I ain’t worried about that shit,” the woman told the sergeant. “Y’all get that shit. Black people don’t.”

The incident in East Baltimore’s Perkins Homes was captured in a widely circulated video and came to represent the contempt Baltimore police have often displayed toward residents and public health even during a global pandemic. The exchange also suggested that accurate information about Covid-19 was not making its way into the community.

“The problem is the tension as far as between the community and the politicians, especially when we’re dealing with the police,” Baltimorean Levar Mullen told The Intercept. “It’s a lack of understanding.”

By the time the video started to spread, Mullen was trying to address the problem, walking Baltimore’s streets with his horse-drawn wagon and distributing food, masks, and information about Covid-19. Mullen is an arabber, a member of a long-standing Black Baltimore subculture that raises horses to deliver fresh produce to residents, connecting communities in a deeply segregated city and remedying local food deserts.

Levar Mullen distributes food, personal protective equipment, and information about Covid-19 in Southwest Baltimore in May 2020. Photos: M. Holden Warren

Mullen also works as a violence interrupter, and the contrast between his response to Covid-19 in the community and the coughing sergeant’s underscores the fundamentally different approaches their agencies also take toward violence, an ever-present epidemic in Baltimore.

Violence interruption, created in Chicago by epidemiologist Gary Slutkin in 2000, views gun violence through an epidemiological lens and tries to prevent it with public health approaches. Because the program views violence as contagious, its methods are similar to those, like contact tracing, used to track outbreaks of Covid-19.

“Violence has been viewed incorrectly: It has been seen as a moral problem rather than an epidemic health problem,” Slutkin told The Intercept. “Violence behaves exactly like any other contagious disease.”

Slutkin’s pilot Cure Violence program in Chicago reduced shootings in the neighborhood where it operated by 67 percent its first year. The program has since spread to cities around the world and continues to yield positive results.

As people call for defunding police departments during a global pandemic, a public health approach to violence has a lot of appeal.

Safe Streets, Baltimore’s version of Cure Violence, got off the ground in 2007. A 2012 study from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health showed the program was responsible for significant reductions in violence in three of the four neighborhoods where it was implemented. There was a 56 percent reduction in homicides in the neighborhood of Cherry Hill and a 26 percent reduction in McElderry Park. In nearby Ellwood Park, there was a 34 percent reduction in nonfatal shootings. The Mondawmin neighborhood, where Mullen worked, was added as a fifth Safe Streets “zone” in summer 2012.

In 2019, according to city data, Safe Streets mediated more than 1,800 conflicts. Though the city still suffered from a record number of homicides, Cherry Hill, once considered one of Baltimore’s most violent neighborhoods, went a year without a murder, a success many attribute to Safe Streets.

As people call for defunding police departments during a global pandemic, a public health approach to violence has a lot of appeal. Slutkin believes Cure Violence is the path to reducing police presence, getting away from the “threat and force and punishment-based” approach to crime, and actually preventing violence.

“Most of the places I’ve been in the world that are safe are not safe because of policing,” he said. “They’re safe because of community norms against using violence.”

Cross Purposes

Because of the time Mullen spent in prison on a murder charge, he is what the program calls a “credible messenger,” a community worker who is able to gain trust on the streets to stop violence before it spreads.

“I definitely have a responsibility to make an amends with the community,” Mullen told The Intercept. “I fucked it up so I have a moral duty, you know what I’m saying, to try to give back.”

He gathers information about potential outbreaks of violence and uses his connections to stop the spread of shootings and retribution through mediation.

When Mullen urges someone not to shoot or retaliate for a prior shooting, they might actually listen because of his life experience and the understanding that he won’t involve the police, he explained.

“They could trust that I’m not gonna allow a situation to come back and bite them in the ass,” Mullen said. “They could trust that if me and my crew get them together … [they] ain’t got to bring no weapons.”

Being a credible messenger doesn’t just mean people will listen to you; it also means people will talk to you. You have to know who was responsible for a shooting and why in order to know who might retaliate.

Interrupters are often reluctant to talk about particular mediations in order to maintain this trust, but in a public talk in 2016, Dante Barksdale, the Safe Streets outreach coordinator who hired Mullen back in 2012, described a shooting he came upon. He quickly learned that the beef went back to 2004 when “A” testified against “B.” Both ended up in jail, and when A came home in 2015, B’s brother “C” went to shoot A. C’s gun jammed, and A shot him instead. A few months later, C’s brother, who had no stake in the original beef, shot A. Understanding that 11-year history enabled Barksdale to get in the middle of the conflict and stop it from escalating further.

Having that kind of knowledge sets violence interrupters at odds with the police. Cops would like that information, but they can’t get it from Safe Streets because the program views violence as a public health issue. Mediation is governed by a street-level version of doctor-patient confidentiality. According to Slutkin, for an interrupter to talk to the police would be like a doctor sharing the result of an HIV test with someone other than the patient.

Safe Streets workers walk past a mural of Freddie Gray, painted by the artist Nether, in Sandtown-Winchester in West Baltimore in 2016.

Safe Streets workers walk past a mural of Freddie Gray, painted by the artist Nether, in Sandtown-Winchester in West Baltimore in 2016.

Photo: Andre Chung for The Washington Post via Getty Images

“That is how confidentiality is essential for public health. They have to be able to talk to the health worker with a full trust that they can empty their guts out there,” Slutkin said. “This isn’t against a police officer, he has a different role.”

Jeffrey Butts, director of the Research & Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, believes there are productive ways for police and violence interrupters to work together.

“The correspondence and coordination with law enforcement needs to be at the very upper reaches and should be confidential … and they should talk about things like, ‘in this neighborhood … something’s brewing,’” he told The Intercept. “But they undermine it by saying ‘Who are the leaders in that? Give me some names.’”

“Any kind of violence interrupter program was automatically thought to be criminal.”

“What I remember was, like, every cop being so cynical,” Larry Smith, a former Baltimore police detective, told The Intercept. “Any kind of violence interrupter program was automatically thought to be criminal.”

Now that alternatives to policing offer a serious budgetary threat to the law enforcement model of violence prevention, violence interruption programs have become more formidable competitors.

“Law enforcement people actually do engage in this fantasy that crime goes up and down because of them,” Butts said. “So they would undermine the program just to maintain their own ideological dominance and perception of the community that they’re in charge.”

Slutkin agreed. “There have been a lot of false accusations against these workers for the intention of hurting the program so that there can be a maintenance of an unthreatened status quo,” he said.

Mullen saw firsthand how police could undermine violence interruption when he was arrested by corrupt Baltimore police officers.

“Instead of looking at us as an ally, they look at us as the opposition because in their eyes, we never change,” Mullen said. “So now we become a target.”

Targeted Enforcement

By the end of 2013, Mullen had been working as a violence interrupter in Baltimore’s Mondawmin neighborhood for a year and a half. The neighborhood had 28 shootings between 2012 and 2014, and Mullen often knew who was doing what; he had to if he wanted to intervene in the violence.

On December 7, a white Baltimore police detective named Wayne Jenkins, accompanied by officers Evodio Hendrix and Ben Frieman, pulled Mullen over on the pretext that he wasn’t wearing a seat belt. Mullen insisted his seat belt was fastened, but he wasn’t surprised. These same cops had been harassing him and his outreach workers for weeks.

Safe Streets workers, from left: “Ice,” a Cherry Hill hospital responder; Dante Barksdale, outreach coordinator; “Reds”, another hospital responder; Elgin Maith, Director CHerry Hill Safe Streets; Denis Wise, former Director of Penn North Safe Streets.

Safe Streets workers, from left: “Ice,” a Cherry Hill hospital responder; Dante Barksdale, outreach coordinator; “Reds,” another hospital responder; Elgin Maith, director of Cherry Hill Safe Streets; and Dennis Wise, former director of Penn North Safe Streets.

Photo: Courtesy of Safe Streets
The cops said that when they approached Mullen, he made a “furtive motion” and was “visibly nervous.” When he refused to allow them to search his truck, they pulled him out and claimed he had a gun. Mullen said that “the police stopped him for no good reason and made up critical facts set forth in the statement of probable cause,” according to a motion filed by his lawyer.

The officers called him “Mr. Safe Streets,” Mullen said, and demanded information about a recent shooting. “It was only after this refusal that the police asked Mr. Mullen if they could check his truck for drugs and guns,” his lawyer wrote.

When Mullen refused, Frieman called a K-9 unit. Frieman’s partner, Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, had already used a dog to search Mullen’s truck a few weeks earlier — and found nothing.

Before the dogs got there, Frieman asked Mullen to roll down the passenger window so Jenkins could ask him a question. When Mullen leaned over and took his eye off Frieman, the detective stuck his hand through the partially opened driver’s side window, opened the door, pulled Mullen out, and arrested him.

“They knew that I had multiple suspended sentences,” Mullen told The Intercept. “They knew what I was facing had I been arrested for anything, let alone a gun or drugs, you know what I’m saying? They knew that and that was their tactic.”

He didn’t even know he was being charged with a gun until the next day, he said.

The same qualities that made Mullen effective in the streets left him particularly vulnerable in a situation like this. His gun charge went federal, and his lawyer advised him to plead guilty. If he went to trial and lost, his sentence would be much higher.

Police used the arrests as evidence that Safe Streets was inherently crooked — and bad publicity for Safe Streets was good PR for the cops.

Mullen understood. “What I look like trying to convince a judge that, ‘Hey, you know I’m innocent on this one,’” he said. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to eight years in prison on the gun charge.

Because of the publicity surrounding Mullen’s arrest, the Mondawmin Safe Streets office was shut down for two weeks.

Despite the guilty plea, Mullen maintained his innocence. But violence interrupters do sometimes legitimately relapse into crime, as a result of their backgrounds and the relatively low pay the job brings. Dante Barksdale’s uncle, Nathan “Bodie” Barksdale — one of the inspirations for Avon Barksdale in “The Wire” — was arrested by federal agents for selling heroin while he worked for Safe Streets. And, in an unrelated incident in July 2015, police raided the McElderry Park Safe Streets office and said they found guns, heroin, and cocaine.

Police often used these arrests as evidence that Safe Streets was inherently crooked — and bad publicity for Safe Streets was good PR for the cops.

Yet Brandon Scott, Baltimore’s City Council president and Democratic nominee for mayor, argues against stigmatizing Safe Streets workers, even in the face of relapses.

“We can’t indict a whole program based off of the actions of one person. If that was the case, we wouldn’t have a Baltimore City Hall, we definitely wouldn’t have a police department in Baltimore City,” Scott told The Intercept.

Even though the Mondawmin Safe Streets office reopened, Mullen says that the city “lost a vital piece of mediation networking” when he was arrested. Sitting in prison, Mullen watched first as the city erupted in protest after the death of Freddie Gray, and then, helplessly, as it erupted in gun violence. There were 11 firearm-related homicides in Mondawmin’s zip code in 2014 and 40 in 2015.

By the end of 2015, Baltimore had endured more than 340 homicides.

In response to the surge in violence, the police department prioritized “proactive policing,” where specialized plainclothes units ride around in “hot spots” looking for “bad guys with guns,” as Baltimore police commissioners are fond of saying. Jenkins received a promotion and began running a new squad, the Gun Trace Task Force, which racked up arrests and gun seizures and collected accolades from higher-ups in the Baltimore Police Department. The task force focused on the same at-risk population Safe Streets dealt with — and with Jenkins as its leader, targeted Safe Streets workers themselves.

Body camera footage of Albert Brown’s arrest on August 1, 2016. Video: Provided to The Intercept

Proactive Policing

In August 2016, Safe Streets’ Albert Brown was arrested by Jenkins and the Gun Trace Task Force as he began to pull away from a gas pump. They said they stopped him because he wasn’t wearing his seat belt. During the stop, Jenkins and his squad searched Brown’s van and said they found a handgun and cocaine stuffed in the visor.

“You work for Safe Streets?” Jenkins asked Brown. “Because this is like the third time we got a guy on Safe Streets with a gun.”

Recorded by a body camera, Jenkins pushed Brown for information about shootings and offered to let him walk if he gave the cops names.

“You wanna go somewhere and talk this out? Wanna make it look like we’re arresting you, get out of here so people don’t see it?” Jenkins whispered. “I don’t care about that gun or the drugs. You wanna go somewhere and talk and keep it a hundred or not? Last chance. If you do it, we gotta go now. Wanna go to jail?”

It was an impossible predicament for Brown. Safe Streets cannot provide information to the police, but if they charged him with the gun and the coke, that would cause problems for the program.

“You might as well take me to jail,” Brown said.

Instead of taking Brown straight to jail, Jenkins and the GTTF went to his house and searched it, without getting a warrant. Detective Daniel Hersl stayed with Brown outside while the squad broke in. Hersl pushed Brown for information and lectured him about Safe Streets.

“Safe Streets, boy, I tell you, all them guys are cruddy,” Hersl said. “The whole program’s got to be shut down. That whole program’s got to go.”

Safe Streets suspended Brown. The gun and drug charges were a political liability. He would likely lose his job. Brown claimed the evidence was planted.

Unlike Mullen, who had pleaded guilty, Brown decided he would fight the charges in court. He tried to get the charges dropped based on the cops breaking into his house without a warrant, but the judge wouldn’t listen.

“I guess you may have a good lawsuit, potentially,” Judge Charles Peters told Brown’s lawyer, without dismissing the case.

Like Mullen, Brown learned that the qualities that made him a credible messenger on the streets had the opposite effect in a courtroom.

A Cloud of Epidemic Violence

On March 1, 2017, Levar Mullen sat in the rec room at Allenwood Federal Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania, on the third year of his eight-year sentence.

One of the six televisions clamoring for attention on the wall was broadcasting something about Baltimore cops who had been arrested on federal RICO conspiracy, racketeering, and robbery charges.

An indictment unsealed that morning charged members of the Gun Trace Task Force with a vast array of criminal activity: from stealing drugs and money to dealing drugs, protecting drug dealers, and claiming thousands upon thousands of dollars in false overtime from the city.

Wayne Jenkins (Left/Top) and Evodio Hendrix (Right/Bottom), two of the officers who arrested Mullen and were later charged with federal crimes. Photos: Courtesy of U.S. Attorney’s Office/Getty Images

Jenkins and Hendrix, two of the officers who arrested Mullen, and Hersl, who was involved in Brown’s arrest, were charged along with four others. Frieman was not charged with any crimes and has since left the Baltimore Police Department.

Generally, bad police are considered exceptions in need of more training or better equipment, while a violence interrupter accused of a crime is used to demonstrate the problems inherent in the approach. But that general bias in favor of police is changing, especially in the face of widespread awareness of police brutality, and people are calling for police departments, not Cure Violence offices, to be defunded because of the criminal behavior of members.

In 2018, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health published a study comparing the effectiveness of the Violent Crimes Impact Section — a police unit that Jenkins once belonged to — and Safe Streets. The study counted the VCIS model as more effective in stopping violence than Safe Streets. But it had no way to quantify the effects that targeting Safe Streets workers or suspending the program had on violence. Or the effect that violence had on police.

“The reality is there’s a cloud of epidemic violence. There’s exposure to violence and the expectation of violence and the police are in that cloud,” Slutkin said. “If they’re causing toxicity, it’s because they themselves have been traumatized too.”

Slutkin is careful to note one major difference when it comes to police: “The systems protect their violence.”

Other recent studies have shown a correlation in police violence and an increase of violence in general. One recent study of the kind of proactive policing that the VCIS and GTTF engaged in found that “contact with law enforcement predicts increases in black and Latino adolescents’ self-reported criminal behaviors 6, 12, and 18 months later.”

By contrast, it’s harder to track the criminal behavior that didn’t occur due to violence interrupters. “People don’t really understand public health,” Slutkin said. “Because most of our successes are invisible.”

“We’re trying to save these young people from killing each other. So, you know, I let bygones be bygones.”

Advocates for Safe Streets say more funding would increase the effectiveness of the program. In 2018, the Safe Streets budget got a $3 million boost when it was moved from the health department to the mayor’s office of criminal justice — but its budget was dwarfed by the $500 million police budget.

For Scott, Baltimore’s presumed next mayor in the deeply blue city, it is apparent that the homicide rate, which has surpassed 300 each year since 2015, is not something that can be fixed solely by police or by Safe Streets. Baltimore needs to reimagine public safety and adjust the budget accordingly, he explained, and part of that is investing more in violence interruption.

“We know that the Safe Streets budget isn’t where it needs to be,” Scott said. “We have to have a very deep and hard conversation about how we can accelerate programs like Safe Streets … so that we have less reliance on police.”

As a result of the GTTF indictments, the cases of both violence interrupters were revisited. Charges against Albert Brown were dropped on March 4, 2016, three days after the GTTF indictments. Brown returned to his job at Safe Streets.

On January 19, 2018, three days after Wayne Jenkins pleaded guilty, Levar Mullen was released from federal prison, his sentence reduced to time served.

“Man, you talking to a motherfucker just been in jail for the last four years dreaming about freedom,” Mullen recalled. “So, it was just a feeling of disbelief — like a dream.”

Mullen had missed out on so much. He lost his horses. His grandfather and brother died, and he couldn’t be there. Now that he is free, he tries to look at it as part of his evolution as a violence interrupter. He now also works for ROCA, a violence interruption program that came to the city in 2018 and teaches alternative approaches to conflict mediation to high-risk youths.

“At the end of the day, we are all geared towards doing the same thing,” he said. “We’re trying to save these young people from killing each other. So, you know, I let bygones be bygones.”


Levar Mullen inside an arabber stable in Southwest Baltimore.

Photo: Alpine Labs

After his release, Mullen created a horsemanship program through Safe Streets and ROCA. He will teach a small cohort of high-risk youths the skills of arabbing, such as horse care and riding. Each one of the six to eight youths in the program will have their own horse to care for.

The pandemic put that program on hold, but it never slowed down the rate of violence in Baltimore, so Mullen tries to do what he can to fight both of the epidemics plaguing his community.

For Scott, people like Mullen are precisely what Baltimore City needs more of right now.

“When you have a pandemic and an epidemic at the same time, it’s gonna require credible messengers,” Scott said. “The only way we’re going to reach the people that are most at risk of dying of gun violence and most at risk of contracting Covid is through credible messengers on the ground. People that Baltimoreans can relate to and trust.”

“We have a direct connection to the population that we serve,” Mullen said. “We’re in the community with them all day, every day.”

Portions of this article were adapted from the authors’ book “I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad.”

Join The Conversation